LIVE: SFJAZZ Collective @ The Egg, 3/31/17
I’ve been banging on for years about how jazz should not be irrevocably tied to its history or its icons. With that in mind, it was a serious head-slapping moment when I literally greeted SFJAZZ Collective’s recorded treatment of material by Miles Davis with an outraged snarl: “DON’T TRY AND RE-INVENT THE WHEEL!” Hey, I’ll cop to the hypocrisy. Busted, for sure! Fortunately, my head healed up in time for the rotating all-star outfit’s annual visit to The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, where the results (and my own reactions) were much more satisfying.
The full house that greeted the casually dressed octet showed the Collective has become a major favorite with Greater Nippertown jazz fans, and the feeling is clearly mutual. Bassist (and last surviving original member) Matt Penman warmly thanked The Egg staff for their loyalty, and for “sticking with the crazy stuff we do, year in and year out.” For his part, trombonist Robin Eubanks marveled at the rampant enthusiasm of the crowd, happily blurting out, “You’re even clapping on the Head!”
No question, this audience was dialed into what SFJAZZ was laying down right from the jump, not even waiting for solos to end before bursting into applause. In fact, the horn section had barely gotten through their borderline-dark lines on the second verse of the opener “All Blues” before they got a serious pop from the crowd. There was a slightly off-kilter rhythm to keyboardist Edward Simon’s arrangement of my favorite track from Davis’ universally celebrated album Kind of Blue, and that was just fine: It didn’t stray too far from the original recording, but covered enough new territory that you knew this wasn’t going to be just another evening of Jazz at Lincoln Center-like repertory. This piece was a good introduction to the night, both for Davis neophytes and decades-long fanboys like myself.
While the Collective’s latest release Live: SFJAZZ Center 2016 gives Davis’ material and the band’s originals their own separate discs, the two-hour set alternated classics like “Milestones” and “Teo” with compositions inspired by Davis. Mind you, it was difficult to detect Miles’ influence on altoist Miguel Zenon’s soaring piece “Tribe,” but that didn’t matter because it was yet another riveting track from one of this generation’s most brilliant composers. Then you had “Shields Green,” Eubanks’ soulful tribute to an escaped slave who was linked to Frederick Douglass and died fighting with John Brown. From its finger-snapping bookends to its towering center, you could feel Davis all over Eubanks’ rich musical creation.
It should be said that it wasn’t just their stage dress that marked how casual the Collective was on this evening. From their interactions with the audience to their interactions with each other, this was the loosest I’ve ever seen this group, and I give a lot of credit to their newest member, trumpeter Sean Jones. The Berklee professor could (and did) break up anyone onstage with a simple look, and he has a Satchmo-esque smile that tells you whatever’s happening is the coolest thing on the menu. It helps that Jones is almost as much of an SFJAZZ fan as I am: “I’ve watched this band from afar for a long time, and I’ve stalked them online,” he cracked during his introduction to his own original “The Hutcherson Hug.” That piece is dedicated to Collective co-founder Bobby Hutcherson, who we lost early this year. Jones’ reverent composition was an unabashed love song, and his heartfelt words about the late vibes master showed Jones knew how important Hutcherson was to this project’s development.
Of everyone who’s held the SFJAZZ trumpet chair, I can’t think of a better player for this project than Jones. He’s got the clear, unadorned sound Miles had at his height; he can write large-canvas pieces without making them too ornate, and his arrangement of the encore “So What” built a great bridge between the haunting original recording and the supercharged double-time version Davis played in later years. On the other end of the spectrum, Simon is the anti-Bill Evans, verbose and aggressive where Evans was elegant and reserved – and of the two, Simon would be my first choice. The Venezuelan native also brought electric nuances to Davis’ music that would have shocked Evans to his toes. David Sanchez doesn’t need effects to be electric, both on content and performance; only fellow tenorman Joe Lovano lets the music affect him more physically than Sanchez. At one point during “Teo” (Davis’ ode to longtime producer and Glens Falls native Teo Macero), the rest of the horn section cleared out so Sanchez had enough room to wildly swing his axe around the stage. “You must really love that horn,” Jones exclaimed after the piece concluded.
One thing I didn’t love about this show was a problem that’s been hindering the Collective for some time: The collective inclination – pun intended – to be “too clever by half” with some of their charts. Throughout the night, there were group lines and fusillades that pushed the largest number of notes into the smallest possible spaces, like commuters stuffed into a downtown 6 Train. This happened on both originals and Davis tunes, and the result came off less like instrumental mastery and more like an 8-year old kid yelling, “Hey, look what I can do!” While this problem wasn’t as prevalent as in years past, it did interrupt my musical buzz with bursts of serious annoyance.
In the end, though, the Collective’s take on Davis maintained the right balance of respect and creativity to keep the night bouncing just the right way. Davis probably wouldn’t have cared either way: He once famously said, “After I do something… Well, it’s over.” But for those of us who’ve had Miles as a touchstone for most of their lives, we can never be that removed from the past. Happily, the current cast of SFJAZZ Collective not only loves Davis as much as we do, but understands that Davis would never want his music preserved in amber, and has acted both accordingly and spectacularly.
GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of this concert…
Joe Major’s review at AlbanyJazz.com